Paris — President Francois Mitterrand's trip to Francophone West Africa beginning May 20 underlines the pervasive French commercial and military influence in the area.
It also spotlights the President's determination, after initial hesitations, to keep things that way.
Mr. Mitterrand will visit Niger, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal; three countries ''which have special ties with France,'' presidential spokesman Michel Vauzelle said. ''We want to continue our old friendship.''
That friendship translates into a profound French presence in the area. France is tied by defense accords to most of its former colonies, and 8,000 French troops remain to support the status quo, according to officials in the French Foreign Ministry.
The French have even protected Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko, whose country is a former Belgian colony. In 1977 and 1978, along with the Belgians, the French rushed in paratroopers to drive off ''Katangan'' rebels invading from Angola. Today, the French continue to train paratroopers in Mobutu's army.
Even more striking is how many former French colonies seem to be ruled in close association with the former mother country. The French connection is particularly tight in the Ivory Coast and Senegal, two of Mr. Mitterrand's stops.
There are four times as many French citizens in the Ivory Coast now than there were 22 years ago at the time of independence. They include senior advisers to President Felix Houphouet Boigny and to the Ministry of Economic Planning and Finance. Similarly, in Senegal, French officials here admit that in most ministries there is a key French adviser.
''Before independence the French were only in the big cities,'' said Sally N'dongo, president of the Senegalese Workers' Association in France. ''But now they are everywhere.''
So is the French franc. Both Senegal and the Ivory Coast, as well as Niger, are members of a central banking system under which their currencies are pegged to the franc and France guarantees their convertibility. The French treasury, in effect, assures the countries' debts and currencies.
While in opposition to former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's government , Mr. Mitterrand's Socialists criticized this relationship with Africa as too close, almost neocolonial, and often corrupt. They pointed with disgust to the exposure of an expensive gift of jewels to Mr. Giscard d'Estaing from the autocratic ruler of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bedel Bokassa.
''Things just weren't normal,'' said Hjugo Sada, a Foreign Ministry official responsible for relations with Africa.
But aside from some shifts in emphasis and rhetoric, the Mitterrand government has not fundamentally altered France's role in the region. ''It's true that considerable French influence remains,'' Mr. Sada said. ''Our objectives are the same, but reality has forced us to adopt our policies.''
Reality means critical raw materials, potentially rich sources of commerce, and a key sphere of influence. The French get 20 percent of their oil imports from Africa.
Many other strategic minerals come from Africa. The French depend on Niger, the third country Mr. Mitterrand is visiting, for uranium to fuel their comprehensive nuclear program. Niger is the world's fourth largest uranium producer.
Reality also means that the Africans themselves didn't want to see the French change policy when the Socialists were elected. There was great fear expressed publicly that France would withdraw, both militarily and economically, from Africa.
''Remember, the Africans want us there,'' said Mr. Sada. President Mitterrand moved to alleviate African fears by helping organize and support the pan-African peacekeeping force in Chad last year.
Still, to a limited extent the Mitterrand government has shifted French activities in Africa. France has now pledged to follow the lead of the Organization of African Unity, instead of acting unilaterally as it did in Zaire. It has also pledged to increase development aid from 10 billion francs ($ 1.6 billion) last year to around 16 billion ($2.6 billion) this year.
The French goal is to keep Africa from falling into the clutches of superpower rivalry, the Socialists say. Jean-Pierre Cot, the minister directly responsible for relations with Africa, has made this point repeatedly in recent interviews.
''Russia and America just see Africa as a place to advance their power,'' Mr. Sada said. ''We don't have any hegemonic plans in Africa comparable to the superpowers.''
But some Africans think this new emphasis on keeping Africa nonaligned is just a smokescreen. ''Sure, it just keeps us dependent on France,'' Mr. N'dongo said.